You can understand great barbecue, but you cannot control it. The sun, the humidity, the wind direction—all of that changes what happens in the pit. The best barbecue I ever made in my 30-plus years of doing this—on roadsides from the late ’80s until we opened Jim Dandy’s in 2001—was on a morning after a lot of rain. There was still a lot of humidity in the air, but the sun was shining. The ribs did not shrink a bit!
The magic is in the fire. (Never use gas!) We can all use the same rubs and similar sauces on them, but the difference between good and great barbecue is in that fire.
It’s all about when you put the meat on. You start the fire and build a bed of coals—glowing wood. If you throw wood on the coals and put the meat in right away, the wood smolders and you get an overly smoky fire. That’s when you get barbecue that tastes like creosote. Raw meat is like a sponge. It sucks smoke into its every fiber and cell, right down to the bone. Burning wood gives off more than visible smoke—it also gives off volatile flavors that affect the meat, the way a cut onion lets off aromatics. The best fire you can have is where the smoke is barely visible. I use hickory and cherry wood. The cherry has a floral note, with soft smoke.
I am not secretive about ingredients. Ribs and chicken you spice a day before cooking, but not pulled pork. My rubs are standard: There’s paprika, onion, pepper, and garlic. I add salt and sugar into that, plus oregano and black tea, with a touch of cayenne pepper. Oh, and I never use frozen meat. Never! Freezing damages the cell walls of the meat, causing the liquids to seep out. The end product will be dry. That’s just physics.